Boreal Action is a grassroots environment and social justice group.

Energy East/ What Would a Pipeline Spill Look Like?

Energy East Pipeline Spill, Explosion and Toxic Smoke plume


D.M. LeNeveu

On July 6, 2013 the fireball from a spill of 5.7 million litres of Bakken crude oil from a train derailment destroyed the town centre, in Megantic Quebec killing 47 people (1,2). Could the same thing happen from a spill of dilbit along the Energy East pipeline? The simple answer is yes. A spill and fire could occur anywhere from Alberta to St. John New Brunswick including in heavily populated centres such as Winnipeg, Toronto and Montreal.

Dilbit is flammable, hot, corrosive, abrasive, contains deadly H2S and has a thousand times the energy content of natural gas

Dilbit has a lower concentration of volatile hydrocarbons than Bakken crude but contains thirty percent volatile diluent that is responsible for its low flash point of -35C (3). After about 24 hours of weathering dilbit is no longer flammable without an accelerant or other fuel source (4). The sulphur content of dilbit is 3.37% while conventional crude has only 0.34-0.57 % sulphur (5). Most of the sulphur in bitumen extracted by steam assisted gravity drainage is converted by thermal decomposition to the explosive and deadly gas H2S (6,7). Dilbit from cold Lake Alberta is reported to have 300 ppm H2S (8). The high temperature of dilbit in the line of 70 C can lead to further thermal decomposition potentially increasing the H2S concentration to more than 1000 ppm. (5,8,24). Naturally occurring bacteria can also convert sulphur to H2S in the pipeline (25).

Based on worker safety, the Federal Energy Regulator Commission in the US has allowed pipeline companies to reject oil with more than 5 ppm H2S (23, 26). The sulphur content can also lead to the weakening or embrittlement of pipelines (5, 8).

The pipeline pressure for dilbit is 1440 psi compared to 600 psi for conventional crude and about 1000 psi for natural gas (5,9). At 927 kg/m3 (3) dilbit is a little less dense than water and has an energy content similar to Bakken crude with one thousand times the energy content of natural gas per cubic meter (9,10,11). Dilbit contains fifteen to twenty times higher acid concentrations than conventional crudes and high concentrations of chloride salts which can lead to chloride stress corrosion particularly for the higher temperature of a dilbit pipeline (5). The 125 pounds of quartz sand and alumino-silicates per minute pumped in the dilbit line will erode the forty year old pipeline (5,12,13). This abrasive sand is not in conventional crude or natural gas lines (5). The sixteen fold higher pipeline spill rate in Alberta compared to the US is likely due to the corrosive and abrasive properties of dilbit (5).

Pipeline failure will cause a large toxic dilbit spill

It would take up to 10 minutes to shut down the Energy East Pipeline after a leak. In this time, about one million litres of dilbit could spill (14). The pipeline is 1.067 metres in diameter, the distance between shut off valves is 30 kilometres (14) and the pipeline volume between shut off valves is 23 million litres. A substantial portion of this 23 million litre volume could drain out after valve closure likely spilling more than in Megantic. Large pipeline leaks of dilbit have already occurred such as the 3 million litre spill in the Kalamazoo River in Michigan in 2010 (15). A 5.2 million litre pipeline spill of crude oil occurred in Manitoba in 1967 (16). In 2012, ninety oil spills occurred in Manitoba with a total volume of 795 thousand litres (17). Dilbit is toxic. The heavy portion of the dilbit sinks in water and is very difficult to clean up (15). The toxins are known to enter the food chain (28).

Parallel natural gas pipelines magnify the dilbit explosion risk

Between Alberta and Winnipeg five natural gas lines run parallel (18). One is slated to be converted to carry dilbit (19). Three lines parallel run from Winnipeg to North Bay and two from North Bay to Toronto (18). Four natural gas pipelines explosions have occurred in Manitoba since 1995, the most recent in Otterburne in the winter of 2014 (20). The explosion of one line in Rapid City of July 19, 1995 ignited a second line (20). The combination of a dilbit line and parallel natural gas lines magnifies the risk of dilbit fire and explosion.

A dilbit fire will produce a toxic smoke plume requiring the evacuation of a large area

The smoke plume from a dilbit fire is likely to be extensive due to the large amounts of heavier hydrocarbons and would require the evacuation of a large area. For example, on July 4, 2002, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources set a controlled burn of 950 thousand litre crude oil spill from an Enbridge pipeline break near Cohasset Minnesota that created a smoke plume about 1.6 kilometres high and 8.0 kilometres long (21,22). Under certain conditions the evacuation of an entire city such as Winnipeg could be required (27).

Spills, toxic plumes, and explosions will occur

It is not a matter of if, but when and where spills, deadly explosions and massive toxic plumes will occur along the Energy East pipeline.


1) The Common Sense Canadian, More oil spilled at Lac-Mégantic than by Enbridge into Kalamazoo River, July 22, 2013

2) Mackrael, K. and Robertson, G., Lax safety practices blamed for Lac-Mégantic tragedy, The Globe and Mail, Aug 19, 2014

3) Blackmore, T., Murray,D., and Lemieux,A., Solutions Light Ends Composition in Dilbit and Conventional Crudes, Prepared by, Omnicon Consultants Inc. PO Box 21059 Terwillegar Postal Outlet Edmonton Alberta T6R 2V4, prepared for for Alberta Innovates Energy and Environment, March 25, 2014

4) Tsaprallis, H. and Zhou, J., Properties of Dilbit and Conventional Crude Oils, prepared for Alberta Innovates Technology Futures, February, 2014

5) Natural Resources Defense Council National Wildlife Federation Pipeline Safety Trust

Sierra Club, authors, Anthony Swift, Susan Casey-Lefkowitz , Elizabeth Shope, Tar Sands Pipeline Safety Risks, February 2011

6) Dettman, H,D., Li, N., Wickramasinghe , D., and Luo, J., The Influence of Naphthenic Acid and Sulphur Compound Structure on Global Crude Corrosivity under Vacuum Distillation Conditions, NACE, Northern Area Western Conference, Calgary Telus Convention Centre (CTCC) South Bldg. 120 9 Avenue SE Calgary, Alberta T2G 0P3,Canada, NACE International. Houston Texas, Feb. 15-18, 2010

7) Marcano, N, Larter, S., Snowdon,L., and Bennet,B., An overview of the origin, pathways and controls of H2S production during thermal recovery operations of heavy and extra-heavy oil, Integration GeoConvention, Calgary, Alberta, May 6, 2013

8) Vaidyanathan, G., Scientists find conventional crudes similarly corrosive to oil sands Mix, Environment and Energy Publishing, EnergyWire: Monday, December 10, 2012

9) Natural Resources Canada, Frequently Asked Questions Concerning Federally Regulated Petroleum Pipelines in Canada,

10) World Nuclear Association, Heat Values of Various Fuels, March 5, 2010

11) Joint Review Panel for the Enbridge Northern Gateway Project, Hearing Order OH-4-2011, Northern Gateway Pipelines Inc., Enbridge Northern Gateway Project Application of 27 May 2010, Volume 13, Hearing held at Ramada Hotel Downtown 444 George Street Prince George, British Columbia, January 18, 2012

12) Math Pro Inc., Effects of Possible Changes in Crude Oil Slate on the U.S. Refining Sector’s CO2 Emissions, March 29, 2013, Prepared for International Council on Clean Transportation, MathPro Inc. P.O. Box 34404 West Bethesda, Maryland 20827-0404

13) Blackwell, R., As Decision Looms, Seven Facts on Enbridge’s Proposed Line 9 Reversal, The Globe and Mail, March 6, 2014

14) TransCanada, Energy East Oil and Pipelines 101

15) CBC News, Enbridge’s Kalamazoo Cleanup Dredges up Three Year Old Spill , Sept. 6, 2013

16) Kheraj, S., Oil Pipeline Spill History at the National Energy Board of Canada Library, Active, May 8 , 2014

17) Manitoba Mineral Resources Spill Statistics, 2012 Petroleum Industry Spill Statistics

18) Ontario Energy Board Energy East Consultation

19) Roger Drouin, The Big Push: Putting Tar Sands Through Old Oil Pipelines, Truthout News Oct.2 2013

20) Kives, B., Pipeline Failures Relatively Rare Here, The Winnipeg Free Press, September 8, 2014

21) Durham Clear, Durham Citizen’s Lobby for Environmental Lobby and Responsibility, Enbridge Line 9 Reversal, March 11 2013,

22) Nikiforuk, A., The Enbridge Dirty Dozen, The Tyee, July 31, 2010

23) Drajem,M., Keane, A.G. and Lynn Doan, Bloomberg News L. , Jan. 3, 2014

24) Nicholson, M. and O’Brien, T., Hydrogen Sulphide in Petroleum, Crude Oil Quality Association Meeting, Houston, May 31, 2001

25) Corrosionpedia Inc., 4207-98 Street NW, Suite 104, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada
T6E 5R7

26) Wellinghoff, J. United States of America Federal Regulatory Commission, Order Accepting Tariff Filing for Enbridge Pipelines, North Dakota, Docket Number IS13-273-000, June 6, 2013


27) Stieber, Z. Casselton, ND: Train Derailment, Fire, Explosions Prompt Evacuations, Epoch Times, Dec.30, 2013


28) McLachlan,S. and Riddell, C.H., Environmental and Human Health Implications of the Athabasca Oil Sands for the Mikisew Cree First Nation and Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation in Northern Alberta. Phase Two Report: July 7, 2014


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